Exploring Italy's dazzling Dolomites

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of May 28-June 3, 1998
Exploring Italy's dazzling Dolomites
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Exploring Italy's dazzling Dolomites
Question: I'd like to plan a trip to the Dolomites in Italy. I've heard it's spectacular, plus it's close to all that good food! I'm a moderately experienced hiker and would like to take a multi-day camping trek around the area. What's out there?

Dennis Park
Chicago, Illinois

The triple peaks of the Dolomite mountains in Passo Sella
Adventure Adviser: Out there in the Dolomites — Italy's breathtaking Alps — are clusters of limestone spires laced with verdant valleys and high alpine meadows. One of my favorite destinations, the Dolomites keep a low profile next to some of their more illustrious neighbors. Don't let that fool you — in northern Italy you'll find one of Europe's premier hiking areas.

The Dolomiti stretch across two Italian regions — Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto — and encompass three provinces: Bolzano, Trento, and Belluno. The region has more than 10 different clusters of massifs, each boasting at least one 9,000-foot peak. Of the Dolomites' many magnificent pinnacles, the most stellar include: the Sciliar, the Sella group, the Dolomiti di Brenta, the Adamello group, and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.

A vast trail system and network of over 100 rifugi (mountain huts) make the area ideal for hikes of any length. In addition to four alte vie, or high routes, that take 10-14 days, there are numerous shorter hikes suitable for all skill levels. Trails are well maintained and clearly marked with red- and-white painted bands. Be on the look-out for the many wooden crucifixes that dot the pathways, and for trails that began as wagon routes during World War I. Although camping is permitted, why not take advantage of the first-rate hut system? Every rifugio I've seen is well situated, clean, and comfortable. And nothing tops capping off a strenuous 10-hour hike day sipping a cold draft beer from the hut's vista-surrounded deck.

There is a terrific bus system throughout the Dolomites, and the region's gateways are easily accessible by train, so having a car is by no means necessary. Hikers can also make use of many of the chair lifts, which during the summer months ease some of the climbs. Late June through September is the best time to hike, with most rifugi closing and snow arriving by October. Wildflowers peak during July and August, when the area's signature stella alpina (edleweiss) and alpenrose (bush rhododendron) flank every trail.

Since each of the Dolomites' main massif groups has a very different look, I'd suggest planning an itinerary that allows you to experience a few. By traveling east to west (or reverse), and picking a few key towns as bases for three-day hikes, you can get a full dose of this area's beauty. For planning purposes, use the extremely helpful Tabacco 1:25,000 map series for your chosen areas (available throughout the Dolomites; your local mountaineering store can probably order them for you, too). These maps are organized by region (No. 03 for Cortina, No. 05 for the Sciliar, for example) and give extensive details on trails, altitudes, and gradients, as well as locations of huts and chair lifts. As for the rifugi, best to book ahead during the summer. The local tourist offices listed below can provide more information.

I would definitely begin or end your trip in Cortina d'Ampezzo (of 1956 Winter Olympics fame), just under a three-hour drive or train trip from Venice. Using Cortina as a base, do a three-day hike from Passo Falzarego to Passo Cimabanche, both reachable by bus, spending nights at Rifugios Fanes and Biella. Round out your stay with a day trip to explore the Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the Dolomiti Ampezzane. Call Cortina's Alpine Guides Group (0436-47 40) for details and more hiking suggestions.

From Cortina, head west into the gorgeous Val Gardena and Val Badia area. This area is one of the last strongholds of the ancient Ladin culture and language, so don't be surprised when you can't understand the dialect and see signs in both Italian and German. Either San Cassiano or Corvara is a good choice for a base from which to explore Puez Odle National Park and the Sella Group. The tourist office in Corvara (0471-83 61 76) can provide more details.

Continuing west, Castelrotto or Siusi could be your next stop for forays into the magnificent Sciliar/Alpe di Siusi. For a three-day trek, bus or drive to the tiny town of Compaccio and catch the chair lift to the trailhead. From there, hike up to Rifugio Bolzano along the Sentiero dei Turisti, admiring the views of the gothic-like Catinaccio group en route. The following day, cross over to the revered Rosengarten and sleep at Rifugio Passo Santner, possibly the most spectacularly located mountain hut in the alps. Day three involves a full-day hike back to Compaccio. For more information, check in with the folks at the Associazione Turistica Sciliar at 0471-70 63 33.

You could end your Dolomites exploration in Bolzano, Alto Adige's capital, about a four-hour drive/train trip back to Venice. Experienced mountaineers might want to continue further west and spend time exploring the Dolomiti di Brenta, where many of the routes incorporate more technical vie ferrate (climbing trails with permanent steel cords) that require ropes and harnesses. This region, along with the Adamello group, is easily reached from the town of Madonna di Campiglio.

One last note about food. Sure, you'll have some access to Italy's fine dishes (in Cortina especially), but remember this region's rich Germanic, Austrian and Tyrolean influences. Altoatesino cuisine is characterized by hearty soups and canederli, dumplings stuffed with speck. If you're counting on hand-made pasta, better prepare your stomach for goulash and apple strudel instead.

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